The same problems that bedevil organ transplant procedures today were even more bedeviling in decades past. It was difficult enough to transplant organs from one individual to another, but it was even harder to keep the organ alive long enough to transport it from the donor to the recipient. Assuming that problem was overcome, the organ had to be a fairly good genetic match, else the recipient’s immune system would attack it as a foreign body. And lastly, even if both of those major obstacles were overcome, there were still many more patients in need of organs than there were donors available. Amazingly, Dr. Samuel Lee Kountz figured out how to solve all these problems.
On this day, February 26, in 1975, Dr. Kountz went on The Today Show to perform the first live kidney transplant. Intended to raise awareness of the plight of waiting kidney recipients, the show was an unqualified success. Some 20,000 called in to NBC and offered to donate their kidney.
Prior to solving the problem of donors, Kountz successfully tackled the first two. Working with specialists at Stanford University, he performed the first transplant between non-identical twins: a breakthrough made possible by the immunosuppressive drugs he helped develop. To preserve kidneys in transport he invented the “Belzer kidney perfusion machine” a device that can keep kidneys for up to 50 hours from the time they are taken from a donor’s body.